Studies reveal that the chances of your landing at the destination printed on your ticket drop by 50 per cent if the captain happens upon your iPhone and decides to watch a movie over your shoulder, instead of keeping his hand on the joystick. On the other hand passengers report a 100-per-cent improvement in their in-flight entertainment experience with zero announcements and screen freezes. Okay, so you landed in Baghdad, not Mumbai. But you watched an entire movie. Surely that's worth braving a rocket attack or two.
The only thing more dangerous than my cellphone is my refrigerator, which contains new life forms, mostly green and mouldy, none as yet intelligent. It is part of my "human laboratory" experiment for the betterment of mankind. There was one UFO sighting recently, but nothing materialised. The Unidentified Fried Object remains unidentified. If nothing more, this programme will offer valuable insights into WMD.
Back to cellphones: while strong lobbying against their use aloft persists, the debate continues on whether phones and mobile equipment actually disrupt navigation, with electro-magnetic background chatter causing erroneous readouts and so on.
People still use their phones in-flight. They can be easily tracked, as they leave RFI (Radio Frequency Interference) footprints all over the place. Yet this does not happen. The fact is there is no evidence of a mobile phone ever causing any in-flight glitch.
So we have the purported bad guys - cellphones, with signals reaching out more than 30 kilometres - and the good guys - Wi-Fi, with signals limited to less than 100 metres, and Bluetooth, whose bite barely reaches 10 metres. Wi-Fi, it seems, doesn't interfere with aircraft flight systems and has been given the nod after the ill-starred attempt to bring the Internet on board with "Connexion by Boeing". The project proved expensive and lacked customers. Boeing pulled the plug at the end of 2006, claiming the "market had not materialised".
So how will Wi-Fi work at 9,000 metres? Airlines will be able to offer Wireless services in their cabins through one of two sources - terrestrial cell towers transmitting upwards, or satellites transmitting downwards with uninterrupted coverage over oceans - eventually at Broadband speeds. Virgin America and American Airlines, in a move emulated by Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines, have opted to work ground up with a company called Aircell (www.Aircell.com). The aircraft will receive uninterrupted signals from cell towers across the United States at speeds of around three megabytes per plane at a passenger cost of just over US$12 (Bt400) per flight. Not fast. You could try laboriously downloading your mother in law, but what if you lost the connection? Oops.
Others will opt for companies like Row 44 (www.Row44.com), who offer a live-TV feed, VOIP, and Internet access at Broadband speeds, from satellites. This is good news for BlackBerry owners and pin-stripers in a rush to click open their state-of-the-art laptops. Wi-Fi will be available at a blazing 30 megabits per second at around $6 per flight. This will translate into lower DSL speeds for passengers, but still fast enough to download entertainment off an onboard server. By 2009, passenger jets will be in a position to offer 802.11b/g Wi-Fi coverage routinely.
Lufthansa, Air France, Qantas and Emirates are testing systems for onboard connectivity, while discount airline JetBlue has gone a step further, offering BlackBerry devices free access to Wi-Fi, live TV and satellite radio, as well as to Yahoo Mail, Gmail, Hotmail and AOL, on its "BetaBlue" Airbus A320.
One reason airlines are getting strongly behind these initiatives is the potential to make money. Cash-strapped behemoths need new revenue sources apart from cramming in more sardine seats, and pay-to-use Internet services are looking increasingly attractive. But do passengers really want to hear Dear John plead with his wife to take him back (after his secretary dumped him), on a 14-hour transpacific flight?
US airlines are not keen on voice telephony aloft but others are dipping their toes into these waters. Air France is testing free e-mail and cellphone services on an Airbus A318 flying European routes. And Qantas is experimenting with the Airbus/SITA OnAir (www.OnAir.aero) for onboard Internet connectivity through BlackBerry devices and seat-back consoles. To use OnAir to make calls, all a passenger needs is a GSM mobile device with international roaming and a plane kitted out with the system. It's as easy as saying "802.11b/g".